"A Reaching Welcome"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts September 18, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Recap and Intro
Last week I began a new preaching series on the theme of "Welcome!" We examined Romans 15:7, which reads: "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." This verse tells us, not merely to be friendly to each other, but also to draw each other into our lives, to include one another in our fellowship. And we're to do this according to the standard of Christ: "just as Christ welcomed you."
I ended my sermon last week by looking closely at how Christ welcomes us. We saw that His welcome is gracious, all-inclusive, costly, yet offered freely, enduring, and for the sake of God's glory. This description only begins to scratch the surface. So today we'll look again at the welcome of Christ, using one of the most powerful images of welcome ever created.
Our Scripture reading for this morning comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, beginning in verse 11. Listen to God's Word.
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:11-32
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." ' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
The Crowd's Reaction
One of my most embarrassing moments in life came years ago when I was an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Our church sponsored a talented theater group, The Actors Co-op, a gathering of professionals who put on high-quality plays for the community in The Crossley Theater at church. One evening Linda and I were attending one of the Actors Co-op plays, though I can't remember which one. Right before the play began, the director asked if I'd be willing to help in the performance.
"I guess so," I said, hesitantly. "But I haven't rehearsed or anything."
The Crossley Theatre, downstairs in one of the church education buildings.
"Oh, it will be no problem," he reassured me. "All you need to do is cough."
"Cough?" I asked.
"Yes, at a certain moment in the play, you cough. A few times, and pretty loudly. You don't even have to leave your seat in the audience."
"Okay, I think I can handle that," I said, and the director, who then gave me the cue for my Hollywood stage debut.
Sure enough, in the middle of the play my opportunity came. As I sat in my seat, I coughed. Then I did it a bit louder. Then came one really obnoxious hack. At this point one of the actors on stage stopped, looked at me, and as if interrupting the play, said, "Excuse me, sir. But we have a play to do here. If you're going to cough like that, would you please go outside."
Of course this was all part of the script, and it was supposed to be funny. Problem was, nobody in the audience got it. They all thought I actually had been so rude as to interrupt the play, and some poor actor had to come out of character to scold me. All over the theater people were glaring at me indignantly. And I, of course, wasn't able to defend myself. At intermission I kept getting disparagingly looks from people in the audience, who were convinced that I was a boorish human being.
As you can well imagine, I didn't feel very welcomed by the audience that night. All I got was mean looks and cold shoulders.
The Crowd Reacts to the Parable of Jesus
I've often wondered how the audience would have reacted to the parables of Jesus in Luke 15. The context is crucial. Verses 1 and 2 of the chapter read:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
Notice, "this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." No doubt the Pharisees and scribes were looking at Jesus rather like people in that audience were looking at me, with hardened faces and disapproving frowns. After all, by eating with such rabble, Jesus was exploding all sorts of cultural and religious expectations.
So Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees three stories. The parables were meant to explain why He welcomed those whom other Jewish holy men would have rejected as impure and immoral. As it turns out, these stories tell us about more than just why Jesus did what He did. They speak about the very character of God. They show us the shocking extent to which God Himself is a welcoming God.
In the first story, a shepherd with a hundred sheep loses one, and leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that was lost. When he does, there is great rejoicing.
In the second story, a woman having ten coins loses one of them, and searches her home carefully until she finds it. Once again, there is great rejoicing.
First a lost sheep, then a lost coin, and finally the third story, the story of a lost son.
As Jesus told the story we know as "The Prodigal Son," I can imagine the mounting disapproval of the Pharisees and scribes. The younger son's first offense is bad: he asks for his share of his inheritance while is father is still alive. It's hard to imagine a greater slap in the face to a father in first-century Jewish society. It was as if the son were saying, "Father, I don't even care if you're alive. All I want is my share of your wealth. So give it to me now!" It's easy to envision the crowd listening to Jesus booing - or whatever people did back then to communicate their disgust.
Then comes the second offense: the father actually gives the son what he asks. The Jewish leaders must have wondered what father in his right mind would do this. It seems so peculiar, even unwise. I expect the people in Jesus's audience were now shaking their heads with double displeasure.
Then the younger son takes off for a distant country. Luke says, "he squandered his property in dissolute living." The modern paraphrase of this, by the way, is "he went away to college." Squandering property in dissolute living . . . going to college . . . they sound rather similar to me. At any rate, by now the crowd around Jesus must have been roiled with contempt. You can almost hear their exclamations of disapproval: Stupid boy! Of course he'd fall into loose living! What'd you expect? What an embarrassment to his family!
But then it gets even worse, because the boy runs out of money, and when a famine hits the land, he ends up feeding pigs to try and stay alive. For any Jew to lower himself to feeding unclean pigs is scraping the bottom of the barrel. I wonder if some among Jesus's hearers even began feeling a twinge of sympathy at this point. Others, I'm sure, were finally feeling satisfied, believing that the boy was getting what he deserved: This will teach him to dishonor his father, they might have thought.
But the boy finally "comes to his senses," and realizes that even his father's servants are better off than he. So he formulates a plan to return to his father, confess his failures, and beg to become a hired hand. As he started out for home, I can imagine the hopes of Jesus's crowd: Now he's gonna get his due. Just wait 'til his father sees him. This boy is toast. (Well, probably not toast, more like burned matzoh or something.)
But things don't turn out as the audience hoped. Here's how Jesus described what happened to the boy:
So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
I realize we tend to read this story through Christian eyes, and thus join in the celebration. But Jesus's original audience was probably shocked and scandalized. Where was accountability? Where was discipline? The father ran to his son? This was not the sort of thing honorable fathers did. Moreover, the son had utterly dishonored his father, and now he gets the fatted calf? No, no. This father turned out to be just as prodigal - the word means extravagant or wasteful - as his good-for-nothing son.
But Jesus wasn't finished. Now the story focuses on the older son, the disapproving son, the son who captured the spirit of Jesus's own audience. The older son refused to join in the celebration out of anger, jealousy, and disgust. I expect the audience was feeling a bit relieved as this point: Finally, somebody in this story is gets it right. Maybe the older brother can talk some sense into his father.
He tries, complaining that for his whole life he had been the obedient, hard-working, respectful son, and yet his father had never thrown a party for him. I'm not sure how the scribes and Pharisees would have responded to this. On the one hand, they surely felt sympathy for the older son and endorsed his sentiments. Yet they wouldn't have liked his speaking so bluntly and disrespectfully to his father.
The scribes and Pharisees might have expected the father to rebuke the older son for his insolence. We, on the other hand, might expect the father to rebuke the older son for his hardness of heart. But there's another surprise in this story, both for Jesus's first audience and for us. Here's how the father actually responds:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.
Isn't that something?! Even as the father welcomed the younger son, so he also seeks to welcome the older son back into the family. There is more than enough grace to go around, for both sons. Both are welcomed by the father. And the older son - the good boy, as it were - is expected to join in the welcome of his younger brother.
I expect this conclusion would have perplexed Jesus's critics. Since they are represented by the older brother in this parable - and surely they would have sympathized with him - then they are welcome too. The father - and I don't think anyone would have missed the point that the father is a picture of God - welcomes both sons. He pursues, not only the younger son by running to embrace him, but also the older son by going out and pleading with him to come to the party. In both cases, the father's welcome isn't passive. It's active. It's "out there." It's a reaching sort of welcome, as he reaches out with his arms and with his heart to draw his sons into his fellowship.
And this, Jesus says, is what God's welcome is like. This is meant to explain why Jesus himself welcomes tax collectors and other notorious "sinners." Jesus has come to inaugurate the reign of God. As God is, therefore, so is Jesus.
To Whom Do You Relate?
So where do you fit in this story? To whom do you relate? The younger son? The older son? Years ago a friend of mine, who was going through a terrible time in his life, answered this question by saying, "I relate to the fatted calf." So what about you?
The Older Son
I'd imagine that some of us relate to the older son. We're the proverbial "good kid." We've lived our lives more or less rightly. We've never done really bad things. And there are times, if we're really honest, when it bugs us that God is so gracious with people who've messed up their lives so terribly. We're disinclined to welcome sinners back into the fellowship, at least until they pay their dues to our satisfaction. We tend to sit in judgment upon others, rather than open our hearts and our lives to them.
If you relate to the older son, the good news for you is that God hasn't rejected you for your hardness of heart. God is welcoming you back into his family, and your acceptance of His offer means, in part, that you'll be welcoming the "younger brothers" just like your Heavenly Father does. He is calling you, not only to receive His gracious welcome, but also to have your heart tenderized so that you might welcome others. God offers both welcome and transformation.
The Younger Son
I expect that many of us relate most readily to the younger son. We realize that God has richly blessed us, yet we have squandered this blessing "in dissolute living." We have taken the talents God has given us and used them for our own gain. We have taken our material blessings and used them to store up treasures for ourselves on earth. We have taken our bodies, the temples of God's Spirit, and used them for immoral sexual pleasures. We have taken God's love and hoarded it, rather than sharing it liberally with others. We have rejected God's sovereignty over us and chosen instead to live by our own rules. This is what it's like to be a "younger son." Can you relate?
But then, like the younger son, some of us have had experiences that have felt like pig feeding, and we too have come to our senses. Most of us haven't literally been feeding pigs, of course. Rather we experienced something - or will experience something -- just as painful and shameful. For you, maybe it was divorce or a broken family. Maybe addiction to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. Maybe you got pregnant when you weren't married and had an abortion. Perhaps your pig feeding was failure in school, or work, or friendship. Perhaps it was the rebellion of a teenage child, or the realization that you've wasted your life chasing after wind.
There may be some of you here today who are right square in the middle of your pig feeding. Perhaps you're coming to realize that you can't go on like this, and that you just can't make it without God in your life. You may not be a Christian, so you're not even sure how to approach God. Or you may be a Christian, but you've been living in your own "distant land" for a long time, and you're not sure you know the way back home.
What often happens in these moments of "coming to ourselves" is that we connive a plan to beg God for mercy. We'll say we're sorry for our sin. We'll promise to do better, and really mean it this time. We'll promise to read our Bibles, or go to church, or whatever. And so, like the younger son, we hatch a plan to return to our Heavenly Father.
But we never get to execute our plan. Rather, just like the younger son, no sooner have we figured out how to get back into the Father's good graces when we're almost knocked over by His outstretched arms. He rejects our groveling. He doesn't even bother to hear our plan. Instead, the Father lifts us up into His embrace. He throws a big party in our honor, welcoming us back into His family. We realize, in a flash of amazement, that we are truly invited into our Heavenly Father's company, and that He likes being with us.
Sure, there will be a time for learning how to live rightly in the Father's household as obedient sons or daughters. Sure, there will be opportunities for us "younger sons" and "younger daughters" to learn how to honor the Father in our daily living. All of this will come in time. But it will come as a result of the Father's welcome, not as a prerequisite to it. The starting point for being in the Father's family is his gracious, undeserved, extravagant welcome.
Receiving the Father's Welcome
When we are welcomed home by our Heavenly Father, we become people who welcome others. I'll have more to say about this in the weeks to come. But as we conclude today, I want you to consider the welcome of the Father for you. Whether you're the "older son" or the "younger son," or whether you fall somewhere in between, consider the invitation of your Heavenly Father. Feel His acceptance, His embrace, His forgiveness.
If you've never before known the Father's welcome before, the way home is simple. Put your trust in Jesus as your Savior and Lord. Accept His death on the cross for your sin. Offer your life to Him for His purposes. When you say "yes" to Jesus, the Father runs to welcome you home, and, as Jesus explains, there is great rejoicing throughout heaven. God wants you with Him!
"Return of the Prodigal Son" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-1670.
If you've know the Father's welcome before because you are a Christian, but have been living in a distant land, come back home. Receive the Father's forgiveness. Accept his outreaching embrace. Let your Heavenly Father welcome you home, right now!